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Meet Stephanie Adams, still burdened by student debt

Stephanie Adams, a kinesiologist who lives in Burnaby, B.C. and works in Surrey, lives frugally. But she had racked up credit-card debt while teaching mountain biking at a resort – where work dried up over shoulder seasons.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

In the Paycheque Project, bold Canadians talk to The Globe and Mail honestly about how they spend their incomes and their tough choices for the future.

THE PAYCHEQUE

  • Net monthly income $2,800

THE PAYOFF

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  • Rent: $650
  • Food: $400
  • Transportation: $680
  • Fun: $195
  • Saving: $200
  • Debt: $165

VITAL STATISTICS

  • Age: 25
  • Home: Burnaby, B.C.
  • Work: Kinesiologist

On her 25th birthday last August, Stephanie Adams was feeling a little downhearted. By this point in life, she figured her finances would be under control. Instead, she felt she was treading water.

Ms. Adams, a kinesiologist who lives in Burnaby, B.C. and works in Surrey, lives frugally. But she had racked up credit-card debt while teaching mountain biking at a resort – where work dried up over shoulder seasons. "That lifestyle taught me a lot of life lessons, but at a very high price," she says. "A lot of long-term debt came from that, and I couldn't get out from under it."

In January, Ms. Adams used her graduate-student loan to pay off the credit card – a huge relief. But there are still loans to repay – the undergraduate loan, and now that graduate loan as she earns a graduate diploma in business administration part-time – as well as a loan to pay for a $20,000 truck.

"If I had realized how long I would carry this with me, I would have developed my thriftiness and creativity earlier," she says.

Thrifty is indeed the word for her current lifestyle. Ms. Adams lives in a basement apartment, cooks almost all her meals, and makes shopping choices by studying four grocery-store flyers every weekend. Splurges include the odd bottle of wine, or a coffee out while she studies. But she's careful: She buys any furniture on Craigslist, books come from the library, she buys clothing on sale. Worried about data charges, she doesn't get email on her iPhone. And she watches Netflix at her boyfriend's place.

"I crunched the numbers … and I figured out that I have about $500 at the end of [the month] to put on my VISA or to buy a new sweater or to go to the movies. It was uplifting [realizing] that's why I don't ever have any money – because I just don't have any." Uplifting? "I've actually made a lot of progress," she says, compared to last year.What Ms. Adams does have is three mountain bikes and one road bike. She's considering replacing one of them. But, she says, "I want to be careful to still reward myself, so I don't resent my thriftiness."

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THE BIG PICTURE

Ms. Adams is emblemic of several current trends: temporary and contract work has grown since the recession, making budgeting more difficult; student debt loads have also ballooned, leaving many young grads starting careers saddled with debt.

THE PRO'S TAKE

Education may be one of the best investments – but when you have to borrow to get it, climbing out from under the debt load can take a long time.

When you're 25, like Ms. Adams, you're apt to grow impatient with that process. She wonders whether she should go on to pursue an MBA once she finishes her business administration program – but also about how to balance living for today with investing (and saving) for tomorrow.

We put her questions to Jason Heath, of Objective Financial Partners Inc., a fee-only financial planning firm in Toronto.

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One change he would make right off the bat is to cash in her tax-free savings account – where she's been stashing $200 a month in case of emergencies – to pay down a loan on her truck.

"I really prefer to see people use their hard-earned money to pay down their debt rather than saving in a TFSA," says Mr. Heath.

He adds that her student loans are not as onerous as they first appear because she will get a tax credit on the interest she pays. And that for emergencies, she can use her credit card: "Your emergency fund, if you actually ever need it, becomes the room you've freed up on your credit facilities."

As for the MBA, he says Stephanie should treat the decision much the same way she treats her finances – looking for a balance between costs and future benefits. (Will a fast-tracked MBA get her to where she wants to be professionally?) But she should also take some pressure off herself around long-term planning, which is difficult at this stage, with so many unknowns in her future.

"Getting her finances in order in the short and medium term by paying down debt and doing what she's already started to do will set her up to be able to plan for the long-term when things become clearer in her personal and professional life," Mr. Heath says.

Dianne Maley

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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